The 15th of November saw one of the greatest players to have played the game leave us after one season in SW6. Manchester United legend George Best scored on his debut in September 1976 in a 1-0 win over Bristol Rovers and, having surely played his part in helping us to attract the sponsorship might of adidas in his first full season, scored seven more times before he chose to continue his career in America with the Los Angeles Aztecs. Best netted in his penultimate game - a thrilling 3-3 draw with Sunderland at the Cottage - but bowed out in defeat away at Stoke City.
One of the best comebacks in the Club’s history, this game came on the first day of the 1979/80 season. The early days of Division Two football brought few moments of joy to the Whites faithful and when we went 3-0 down at half-time in Birmingham, it looked like it might be a season to forget before a hat-trick from Gordon Davies and one from Chris Guthrie turned it all around. Fulham fan Keith Castle, Britain’s first heart transplant patient, went under the knife at half-time and woke up to see us 4-3 winners. “Now you know why I’m here,” he was alleged to have told doctors afterwards.
The next time that adidas arrived on the scene at Craven Cottage was in 1997, when Mohamed Al Fayed changed everything for the Club. It was a season of consolidation in Division Two as Fulham were building a team to challenge for the top flight inside Al Fayed’s five-year plan, and the transfer record was broken on a regular basis as Paul Peschisolido arrived for £1m, before Chris Coleman’s £2m fee doubled it within a month. The signing of England legend Peter Beardsley late in the season showed our potential and Kevin Keegan’s arrival would give us the platform to storm to the league title a year later.
The first trophy of the adidas era arrived in Keegan’s first full season in charge. After Mr Al Fayed’s takeover, there were a host of players at the Club eyeing promotion and Keegan’s brand of attacking football delivered as we stormed to the title with a record 101 points in Division Two. Goalkeeper Maik Taylor managed to set a record of 24 clean sheets in his 46 games, while Geoff Horsfield finished as top scorer with 15 goals, closely followed by defender Kit Symons’ 11. With the best defensive record in the league (conceding only 32 goals) and winning 31 of our 46, we topped the table by 14 points from Walsall and ensured that our place in Division One was sealed early.
A season of consolidation in Division One saw us follow it up with an incredible start to the 2000/01 season. Managerial changes had seen Keegan depart, along with Paul Bracewell and caretaker Karl-Heinz Reidle, but Jean Tigana arrived to oversee our charge to the title. The first 11 games were a blistering display of attacking talent, as Louis Saha plundered 10 goals alongside Barry Hayles’ seven and Luis Boa Morte’s five. The only game remotely in doubt was a 1-0 win over Norwich City settled by a second-half strike from Boa and every other game saw at least two goals. For the most part it was more, as we beat Stockport County 4-1, Barnsley 5-1 and rounded it off with a 3-1 victory against Crystal Palace. From 12th August to our 0-0 draw against Wolverhampton Wanderers on 21st October, it was nothing but wins and we ended the season with another 101-point haul which secured our place in the Premiership.
The successful promotion ensured that there was more money available to spend on players and Mr Al Fayed strengthened our side considerably in the summer. Having previously been £4m for the purchase of Alain Goma, our transfer record shot up to £7m when we managed to bring in goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar from Juventus. The Dutchman went on to become a legend for us before leaving for Manchester United in 2005, but wasn’t the record for long as we paid a reported £11.5m for Lyon striker Steve Marlet a month later.
The first game on our arrival back in the top flight was played at the home of the most successful team in Premiership history! Inside two minutes we were ahead as Sean Davis launched a long pass into the path of Saha and the Frenchman chipped over Fabien Barthez. Davis was running the show, but defending champions United came back with an equaliser from David Beckham that crashed in off the bar on 36 minutes. After the break, we came out of the blocks quickly again and Saha hammered home to put us ahead once more. This time, however, United hit back instantly as Ruud van Nistelrooy smashed a close-range double to put the Red Devils into the lead for the first time. Davis almost grabbed a late equaliser from a header, but the final whistle came. We had shown we could almost match the best team in the land and were on track with our first win at the Cottage in the Premiership next game as we beat Sunderland 2-0 with goals from Barry Hayles and Louis Saha.
The Club’s progress to the last four of the FA Cup was relatively easy. Lower division sides such as Wycombe Wanderers (after a Replay), York City, Walsall and West Bromwich Albion were negotiated before we were drawn against local rivals Chelsea for the first time in over 50 years. With a neutral venue, Villa Park, playing host to the West London derby and a rather absurd kick-off time of 7pm on a Sunday evening, we came close to reaching Wembley but were denied by a scrappy goal from John Terry just before half-time. Our best chance was probably when Saha’s efforts was almost turned into his own net by Marcel Desailly, but we were back among the top clubs in the world’s best cup competition.
There is nothing like the feeling of lifting a trophy and as adidas’ deal entered its final season we ended on a high. The domestic campaign was one of consolidation again, but we found success in the cups: reaching the Fifth Round of the FA Cup and winning a place in the UEFA Cup by sealing the Intertoto trophy. Our European debut came against FC Haka in July and was a dull 0-0 draw, but we made it to the Final in August against Italian side Bologna. A 2-2 draw set us up nicely for the return leg and, at our temporary home of Loftus Road, it was Junichi Inamoto who took over with a hat-trick to give us a 3-1 win (5-3 on aggregate). Finally, Fulham were a European force.
After our European adventure, our second season in the Premiership proved to be pretty similar to that of the first: A lower-half finish, but some great games and impressive performances to show that we were well worth our place in the top flight. Having beaten Tottenham Hotspur 3-2 in the fourth game of the campaign, we hosted Liverpool at the end of November and beat them by the same scoreline. Although the Reds were not the force they were when adidas first arrived in SW6 in 1977, they were still an imposing proposition and two goals from striker Facundo Sava, and another from Davis, ensured we came away with the glory from this one. Fulham Assistant Manager Christan Damiano said afterwards: “This was a very important moment for us to get a result against one of the great teams.”
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